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News (Media Awareness Project) - US GA: Editorial: Justice System Reform Could Be Year's
Title:US GA: Editorial: Justice System Reform Could Be Year's
Published On:2011-11-30
Source:Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, GA)
Fetched On:2011-12-03 06:02:06

It's interesting how, when the economy gets tough, common sense
suddenly acquires bipartisan advocacy and the added virtue of affordability.

Back in the flush and heady '90s, common sense all but vanished from
the realm of criminal justice -- or rather (in fairness to those who
didn't make the rules but bore most of their effects) from the
politics of criminal justice. Money wasn't a problem, long-term
consequences be damned, and get-tough, jail-'em-'til-they-rot
demagoguery carried the day.

The result was chest-beating political idiocy like two-strikes rules,
mandatory minimum sentences and the like, most notably in the
near-epidemic brain paralysis of the war on drugs.

Now, in the second decade of a new millennium, the legacy of that
political frenzy is a seemingly bottomless economic and correctional
swamp. Prisons are bursting, correctional costs are ballooning, and
nobody believes we're one whit safer. Georgia's annual corrections
spending now exceeds $1 billion a year, and budget analysts say if
nothing changes, the state will have to come up with an extra $264
million over the next four years for -- you guessed it -- more prison space.

It should go without saying that crime demands strong and effectively
deterrent punishment, and dangerous criminals need to be locked away.
Public safety has to trump other considerations. But when we can no
longer afford what isn't working, then the public is obviously
spending too much money for too little safety.

A Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, with bipartisan support
and the strong backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, is considering some
fundamental changes to be proposed in the coming session of the
Georgia General Assembly.

Some of the proposals would involve significant up-front expenditures
for long-term savings, like community-based drug courts and
alternative sentencing centers for nonviolent offenders. Others would
involve relatively little expense, like a sweeping revision of
sentencing laws and something the council calls a "safety valve" for
judges. It's what, in a saner age, we called judicial discretion --
the authority of a judge to impose a sentence based on the specific
circumstances of a case, rather than on arbitrary guidelines imposed
by posturing politicians 20 years ago.

"Having served as a trial judge," said state Supreme Court Chief
Justice Carol Hunstein, "I know there are really differences in the
same kinds of crime when you look at the defendants and the facts of
the crime."

A comprehensive overhaul of Georgia's criminal justice system could
be a landmark legacy of this administration and this legislature.
Concerns about being labeled "soft on crime" or about somebody else
getting credit would be a pathetic excuse for doing nothing.
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